On July 29, 1890, Vincent van Gogh walked into a wheat field outside Auvers-sur-Oise in France, pressed a pistol against his left breast, and fired.
On November 2, 2004, Theo van Gogh, great
Mohammed Bouyeri now
Head in Flames (Chiasmus Press, 2009, available at Amazon.com), Lance Olsen’s latest novel, recreates at thriller pace the climactic moments of these three lives, each man in very different ways – to put it mildly – an artist.
The book itself is composed as a kind of visual fugue in a different font for each man:
Look: I am standing inside the color yellow.
Note that the first voice (Vincent) is in first person; the middle voice (Theo) in third person, objective; and the third (Mohammed), apparently also in third person, but very subjective, and most of the time in a second person that is first person talking to itself. This pattern recurs contrapuntally from beginning to end, with occasional fleeting variation. The reader always knows whose head he’s in, or over whose shoulder he’s looking, without other indication. The reader also knows, from before the beginning, just by reading the back cover, exactly what will happen by the end of the book. Yet thanks to Olsen’s narrative skill this is not at the cost of suspense, just the opposite. Knowing what will happen, but not how, this reader, for one, found himself in constant suspense from one sentence to the next, page after page, in part because he did not want either of the first two heads he inhabited to die, or the third head to commit himself, in an agony of humiliation, hatred, and self-righteous vengeance, to a brutal murder that will consume his own life in a martyr’s sacrifice as well.
Although the stalking of Theo by Mohammed drives the narrative, Vincent dominates. He projects the vision of what art reaches out to make. Colors fire all his five senses and his mind. The colors are so intense a psychiatrist makes a diagnosis of “acute mania with hallucinations of sight.” (He specifically names this “mania” as the motivation for the mutilation of Vincent’s ear.) In what become the last months of his life Vincent paints 900 canvases, nearly one a day in the final 90 days. “They just kept coming. Like a brushfire in the brain. ... They just kept burning,” yet “then they didn’t just keep burning.” As the paintings come, the painter’s health deteriorates, he fears his talent, like his teeth, has begun to rot. For even as his art does everything he asks of it and more, he finds it a failure. Nobody wants the paintings – because they are “ugly” – but, more to the point, “I have tried to make it simple, and failed.” There is no specific “reason” cited for committing suicide; Olsen is too good a novelist to reduce a complex character to black-and-white motivations. But he presents Vincent walking into a ripe wheat field he loves and loves to paint. Look: I am standing inside the color yellow. He chooses to die with “[a]fternoon sunshining in my chest. The high yellow note swarming.” In fact the bullet does not kill him instantly. He picks himself up off the ground, staggers into the village, lingers in bed two days while tended by anxious friends. Still in a state of wonder.
Vincent provides a touchstone as well as a context for his great grand-nephew’s career and for the killer’s mission.
Like Vincent, Theo is an artist, albeit with film instead of paint. As a filmmaker he is much more successful commercially and critically in his 47 years than his great grand-uncle was in his 37. At 24 he directed his first movie (Luger), and directed another 24, winning prizes, up to the day he died. One of them, a 13-part TV series in 2002, adapted Romeo and Juliet to the 21st century Netherlands, featuring a Dutch-Moroccan pizza delivery man (Najib) and a wealthy white girl (Julia). The sympathy is with both, of course, but especially Najib, whose parents object to the relationship all but hysterically on religious grounds, as do Julia’s not so hysterically but just as firmly on grounds more ethnic than religious. In the first climax Najib is pushed off Julia’s father’s yacht by Julia’s jealous personal trainer. Forbidden to attend Najib’s funeral, Julia drives to the beach and walks, fully clothed, into the North Sea.
(Never having seen any of Theo's films, I refrain from characterizing them, even less from comparing them with his great grand-uncle's work. Comparative quality of artwork is not an issue here.)
There’s no indication Mohammed Bouyeri watched this series. But he did hear of a ten-minute film Theo later made together with Somalia-born Aayann Hirsi Ali, first Muslim elected to the Dutch Parliament. Called Submission – the meaning of Islam in English – it is a tract against Muslim treatment of women. It features verses in Arabic from the Quran projected onto the very thinly veiled naked bodies of women kneeling in prayer. It becomes Bouyeri’s stated reason for punishing van Gogh – for channeling the wrath of Allah.
The thing about this novel is that, without any clever manipulation, the killer comes across much more sympathetically than his victim. He is himself a victim fighting back. A victim of Theo’s? Not directly, of course, but Theo has made an imaginative impact on Mohammed and his friends both by his film with Aayan Hirsi Ali and by his widely published mockery of Islam in newspaper columns and on his website, “De Gezonde Roker” (“The Healthy Smoker”). In fact, Theo delights in being a little – or big – shit to just about everybody who crosses his field of vision. At age 10 he even made an 8 mm film of his friends “eating excrement” (actually pulped ginger snaps, but the tone was set). When she first met Theo, Aayan told him he was “the sort of person who had the compulsive urge to goad and insult even his closest friends, preferably on live TV.” He laughed, and told her he was the village idiot. Once he was invited to chair a debate on immigration, but one of the participants, Abu Jahjah refused to attend if Theo attended. Soon some of the young Arab men in Jahjah’s circle started threatening Theo.
On the next episode of his talk show, A Nice Chat, Theo called Jahjah the Prophet’s Pimp and told his gorillas to go fuck themselves.
He was seriously concerned, like his friend the politician Pim Fortuyn, that “by 2015, fifty-two percent of Amsterdam’s population will be of foreign origin, the majority Muslim.” Fortuyn, himself assassinated in 2002 (by an animal rights activist) just “nine days away from becoming Prime Minister,”called Islam “a backward culture” and a “Trojan horse of intolerance”testing the limits of famous Dutch tolerance. Theo did not run for office, but through every news outlet at his disposal he attacked Christianity and Judaism but especially Islam as enemies of civilization. He attacked without fear of retaliation because, as he said, “No one shoots the village idiot.”
For much of his own early life Mohammed Bouyeri lived a cliché. Humiliated at school, berated by his father – who himself never rose, in Amsterdam, above dishwasher – Mohammed drank, smoked dope, dropped out of university, shirked work. Then after his mother died and his father remarried, disgusted with it all, he began in small ways to reverse his habits: refusing to shake hands with women, threatening friends he found drinking in bars, growing a beard. Then one acquaintance, an “illegal from Morocco,” introduced him to another newcomer, Abou Khaled, a refugee from Syria who preached in “private flats and the back rooms of provincial shops.” Among the many exhortations Abou Khaled delivered were “When you meet the unbelievers strike them in the neck” and “It is not you who slay them it is Allah moving through you.” And Mohammed Bouyeri’s life at last took on focus and purpose. All he needed was to discover a precise direction, a specific mission, and the discipline, faith, and courage to carry it out, and for these he prayed unceasingly.
The entrance of Aayan Hirsi Ali on the national scene reveals his direction and his mission.
He writes her a letter. An open letter, signed The Sword of Unified Belief. He tells “Mrs. Hirsi Ali” she is an “intellectual terrorist,” but “YOU WILL SMASH YOURSELF TO BITS AGAINST ISLAM.” He does not mail it but affixes it with a knife to Theo van Gogh’s body. (She goes into hiding, and eventually flees to the United States.)
Neither Theo nor Mohammed gives Vincent van Gogh a thought. Yet for all their dissimilarities, the three of them, in changing combinations, at moments strike common chords.
In the matter of religion, Theo not only rejected but attacked all religious belief. On the other hand Vincent, like Mohammed Bouyeri, in his youth was deeply religious. He even diverted from his drawing and art studies to pursue theology, preaching, and missionary work in the coal mines of Belgium. But for choosing to live, Christ-like, in the same abject poverty as the miners he preached to, Vincent was expelled by local church authorities as “undermining the dignity of the priesthood.” So he abandoned the priesthood’s Christ. Mohammed all but abandoned Islam in his teens, only to re-embrace it with a vengeance in his mid-twenties.
And each in his own way, and with varying degrees of accomplishment, is an artist, Vincent with paint, Theo with film and words, Mohammed with words and action.
Although Vincent van Gogh was not an advocate of l’art pour l’art, what he painted (even The Potato Eaters) certainly did not broadcast any message or particular social or political attitude. This cannot be said of his great grand-nephew Theo, for whom a film was nothing if not a manifesto. In a very different way, Mohammed Bouyeri’s murder of Theo van Gogh is an example of carefully prepared performance art. The novel presents it as choreographed in definite movements, all executed coolly and deliberately, from initial shots to disable the victim, final shots to inflict the greatest pain without killing, because the victim must be kept alive and aware of the next movement, his beheading (incomplete, as it happens), and ultimately impalement of the still-beating heart with a machete and a second knife pinning the letter to Aayan Hirsi Ali ... and a farewell poem in Dutch. The coda is for Mohammed to die a martyr to infidel police bullets along side his victim. (But, the police being slow to play their part, Mohammed takes off into a nearby park, where the police do catch up, wound him in the leg and capture him after he wounds one of them.)
Painful and disturbing are two words that don’t sell many books, yet they are apt descriptions of Head in Flames. The great power of the book, however, comes from its unflinching confrontation with painful salients in the conflict of civilizations commonly called the clash of Islam and the West. The religious dimension of the conflict cannot be minimized, but it is only one of several salients. Islam is famously practiced with varying degrees of severity or liberality from one Muslim country to another. Morocco happens to be a favorite Muslim country for many European and American vacationers because there, by reputation, liberality far outweighs severity. Yet Mohammed Bouyeri is Moroccan, at least by descent; but, born in Amsterdam, he is more specifically Moroccan-Dutch. Although bilingual, because his Arab-Berber parents speak Arabic, his native language is Dutch. Most of his 26 years his interests have all been Euro-American. Olsen recalls for him, as he stalks Theo van Gogh, memories of a visit to Morocco.
So he has grown up Dutch – far more Dutch than Moroccan – but the Dutch look askance at him, discount or ignore him because -- he’s Moroccan. It’s more ethnic – more broadly, civilizational – than religious. Even the issue of the 10-minute film that inflames Mohammed Bouyeri to murder is less religious doctrine or practice than the social and legal treatment in some Muslim countries, notably Saudi Arabia, of women taken in adultery. But for devout Muslims, even not-so-devout Muslims, in these countries, there is no distinction between religious, political, social, or legal. At one time in the West that was also true ... but not since the Middle Ages, when Europeans invaded the Middle East. After six or seven hundred years of increasing separation of the religious from the political-social-legal, Europe has imported and exploited Muslim labor from the Middle East, Africa, East Asia, and wherever it can be found. Even post-colonial, imperial civilization is a two-way street. The colonials migrate to the metropole, demographics change, and the consequences of empire come home.Thinking about how you descended through the Rif mountains in your white Peugeot to discover you were no longer able to converse with your relatives your Berber having eroded that much. ...
As Mohammed is handcuffed he observes one of the policemen holding him:
--watching his faithless mouth move as if it has something to say--
Lance Olsen writes beautifully but what is astonishing about his novels is their range. Early on he wrote a science fiction trilogy, of which the middle volume, Time Famine (San Francisco, CA: Permeable Press, 1996, also available at Amazon.com) , is a masterpiece on many levels. Then with an abrupt change of focus his next novel, Girl Imagined By Chance (Tallahassee, FL: Fiction Collective Two, 2002) is a very strange domestic drama in which a childless couple, to placate distant family, not only pretend the wife has conceived but take a series of carefully crafted photographs to chronicle the pregnancy and birth – and invent baby stories that grieve them that the little girl does not exist. And then Nietzsche’s Kisses (Tallahassee, FL: Fiction Collective Two, 2006), infiltrating Nietzsche’s deracinated mind in the final minutes of his life. If one current [fundamental thrust] runs through them all it is expressed in the title of one of his collaborations with his wife, photographer Andi Olsen: Hideous Beauties (Portland, OR: Eraserhead, 2003, available at Amazon.com). There is a hideous beauty to Mohammed Bouyeri’s murder of Theo van Gogh which makes it apposite to one of the more violent of Vincent’s later paintings.
FlashPøint has always featured poetry, fiction, and art which reconnoiters and trespasses the “frontier where the arts and politics clash.” Head in Flames fires illumination rounds across that frontier.
FlashPøint reviews of Lance Olsen's novels can be found for Time Famine in FlashPøint #3, Freaknest in FlashPøint #5, and Nietzsche's Kisses in FlashPøint #9. An interview with Lance Olsen appears in FlashPøint #6.